State Sen. Scott Wiener makes his case for SB50 in Palo Alto

State Sen. Scott Wiener talks to residents after a speech at Lucie Stern Community Center in Palo Alto earlier this month. Post photo by Allison Levitsky.

Daily Post Staff Writer

State Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, on Friday (June 7) defended his controversial Senate Bill 50 in Palo Alto — a hotbed of opposition to the bill that would permit quadplex homes throughout most of the state and allow dense apartment buildings throughout “jobs-rich” cities.

Wiener spoke to a crowd of more than 100 at Lucie Stern Community Center.

No one protested or heckled Wiener during the talk, which has happened at events in other cities.

Still, Palo Alto Councilwoman Liz Kniss, seated in the front row, noted the energy in the room.

“It’s a wild night,” Kniss told the Post. “I don’t think we’ve ever had someone from another district come and attract this many people. It’s sort of a benchmark.”

Wiener, 49, said SB50 is the answer to the state’s 3.5 million-home deficit, which he said is the result of a “systematic” downzoning of the state in the 1970s and 1980s, making it illegal to build apartment buildings in 75% of the state, including San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Zoning that only allows for single-family homes is a ban on affordable housing and income diversity, Wiener said.

“You’re putting up a sign that says ‘If you can’t afford the $3 million average single-family home in Palo Alto or the $2 million average single-family home in San Francisco, you’re not welcome to live here,’” Wiener said. “Zoning has always been viewed as a purely local concern, and I respect that as a former local elected official, but that no longer works.”

Local control

Opponents to the bill, which won’t be voted on until next year, say that it amounts to an attack on local control over zoning.

But Wiener, who served on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, said SB50 would “do a re-balancing” of power between local government and the state.

“This isn’t about blaming cities. City council members have one of the hardest jobs on the planet,” Wiener said, prompting Councilwoman Kniss to mutter “amen.”

“But local control is not biblical. Local control is a good thing where it leads to good results,” Wiener said.

In California, Wiener said, local governments have wielded too much power over the development process. City councils can deny and delay projects to the point where they are never built.

And SB50 would defer to local setbacks, demolition standards, local design standards and historic standards.

That means developments would still have to be reviewed by cities’ architectural review and historic resource boards, as they do now.

And while the bill would allow single-family homes to be turned into duplexes, triplexes and quadplexes throughout the state — except for zones with high wildfire risk, floodplains and coastal zones in small cities — those homes wouldn’t be allowed to gain more than 15% of their current footprint.

Preventing displacement

To prevent displacement, SB50 wouldn’t allow properties to be torn down within seven years of a tenant living in it, or within 15 years of an Ellis Act eviction.

The Ellis Act allows landlords to evict tenants if they are taking their properties off the rental market.

The bill would not allow property owners to tear down single-family homes to turn them into multi-family homes, Wiener said.

He noted that a report from the Palo Alto-based Embarcadero Institute that stated that SB50 would nearly triple Palo Alto’s population was “melodramatic” in its assumption that the “entire city would be demolished and rebuilt.”

“It’s going to be very gradual over time,” Wiener said.

One audience member asked whether some cities should be exempted if they prove that they can get housing built without prompting from the state.

Housing near jobs and transit

Wiener said he thought housing needed to be built near jobs and transit, and that the current system for evaluating cities for their housing production, the Regional Housing Needs Allocation, was a “broken” system that allowed wealthy communities to shirk off their obligations to permit homes.

Beverly Hills, for example, has an allocation of three housing units for an eight-year period. And Cupertino, which Wiener said has welcomed “endless Apple expansions but not much housing,” is up to pace with its RHNA.

Wiener said the question reflects an assumption that “housing is a punishment, that bad and naughty cities should get the housing.”

“Housing is not punishment, in my view. Housing is a good thing,” Wiener said. “It’s one of the things that everyone needs. So for cities that are meeting their goals, I think it’s really about if we’re going to build 3.5 million homes, where is it sustainable and ideal to build them?”

Wiener’s talk was hosted by Palo Alto Forward, TechEquity, the League of Women Voters, Silicon Valley Community Foundation, SV@Home, San Mateo County Housing Leadership Council and Peninsula For Everyone.

Dispute over questions

After the talk, attendee Paul Martin sharply criticized moderator Elaine Uang, the president of pro-growth group Palo Alto Forward, for her “filtering” of audience questions, which she read from index cards.

Martin told Uang the event had been a “complete failure” as a public forum because she had chosen only “softball” questions for Wiener.

Uang told the Post that she felt she had chosen questions from across the spectrum, including questions about building height, school funding and parking restrictions.


  1. The talk was sponsored by SB 50 supporters. Written questions were collected, but revealing questions did not get beyond the moderator. For example, SB 50 would empower developers to choose whether to build luxury condos or high-priced apartment complexes. Wiener did not mention condos. The housing Wiener seeks – and sought last year in his SB 827 – is for well-off high tech workers – not the homeless and downtrodden Wiener emphasized in his pitch. The high tech companies behind SB 827 are just hiding behind the scenes this year and various groups and local politicians have been recruited to support the new and improved SCAM.

  2. Wiener offered a number of poignant stories about the housing crisis, people who were forced out of their homes, etc. It was a moving presentation. But I wasn’t convinced that his bill would solve these problems. His bill would result in all luxury housing, expensive condos, etc. The poor people he mentioned in his stories wouldn’t be helped by SB 50. I agree that we need to increase the housing supply, but SB 50 isn’t the way to do it.

  3. Housing is needed because of unrestricted business growth. Local communities lose their character. The “jobs-rich” cities suffer from overcrowding and high cost of living. But the city governments are looking at tax revenues.

    BTW I was driving through East Palo Alto yesterday. That place is ripe for expansion.

  4. It was so wonderful to see so many people gathered there to hear from Senator Weiner – a rock star legislator and champion for housing. His approach and SB 50 will not solve the problem in its entirety but it is a really good step to solving our housing crisis. We need more housing to keep our diversity and vibrancy. Stopping jobs will not solve the crisis for half of our community members that are already house-burdened. We need more housing now.

  5. What we need are honest officials aware if what’s happening in their communities, accurate traffic surveys and an end to developer giveaways for under-parked buildings, unrestricted office developments adding tens of thousands of new jobs.

    “…City council members have one of the hardest jobs on the planet,” Wiener said, prompting Councilwoman Kniss to mutter “amen.”

    It must be an even tougher job for Ms Kniss than we knew since she was unaware PA had a traffic problem after how many years of serving as a public odfficial and getting complaints and petitions from the community she purports to “serve”

  6. One concern that Weiner and SB50 ignore is that the increase in population caused by all of this housing will have an impact on our local schools and infrastructure. The property taxes will support the additional teacher salaries, but where will we get the money for new school buildings? Similarly, where do we get the money to expand our water and wastewater systems, increase the capacity of our streets, beef up our police and fire departments? SB50 shifts the expansion costs onto the backs of existing residents. SB50 is what they call an “unfunded mandate.”

  7. The argument that much land is off limits to residential developers is specious. Consider that an even LARGER portion of land is off limits to office developers, but somehow we have managed to have way too much office expansion. Why didn’t that zoning issue stop the job development that has overwhelmed the infrastructure of housing?

  8. When Elaine Uang says she feels she chose questions from “across the spectrum,” she is flat-out lying. I attended the event. I and multiple other people submitted very tough, challenging questions about S.B. 50 on the index cards and she read NONE of the tough questions. I watched her handling of the cards from my seat near the front. It was very obvious that she was reading the cards, having a negative reaction on her face when she read certain cards, setting certain cards aside, selecting only questions that she liked, and possibly transforming certain tough questions into vague topical softballs. She was also generally not reading the questions as written; she was instead asking questions herself that were supposedly derived from topics mentioned on the card. This was a staged Potemkin event designed to create the APPEARANCE of public engagement and public Q&A while in fact just serving as a promotional stage for Scott Wiener. As an elected public official who proposes to redo zoning across California, Scott Wiener should have the courage and honesty to take questions directly from audience members (not via filtered, censored cards), and groups like the League of Women Voters should not be allowing their reputation for non-partisanship to be sullied by association by events that are stage managed by politicians for their own benefit and to push one side of an issue in this fashion.

  9. >groups like the League of Women Voters should not be allowing their
    >reputation for non-partisanship to be sullied by association

    Not the first or last time some on behalf of this “League of Women Voters” (mis)represent themselves as speaking for all women (who gave them that license?) and push forward their agenda with conniving politicians. Happens all the time at Council meetings in the City of Los Altos where a few residents again speak citing and emphasizing their affiliation with this “League of Women Voters”.

    There are plenty women voters who are unaffiliated, do not agree with, and in fact are disgusted with this “League” purportedly speaking on their behalf.

    Time for the rest of us to cite our affiliation with the League of Voters (which, by definition, vastly outnumbers the “League of Women Voters”) and blunt, deflate, puncture this “League of Women Voters” nonsense and expose them for the charlatans they really are.

  10. I have lived in Palo alto for 17 years, an raising kids here, and feel there is an incredibly strong need for housing here. I see relatively few venues where actual solutions to this need are discussed. I am glad that this meeting happened. I hope rich landowners can get over their fears and make this community better for the mixture of people it needs to thrive.

    PS. I almost wonder if some of the hateful commenters in these posts are paid for by foreign real estate investors. ???

  11. >I almost wonder if some of the hateful commenters in these posts are paid for
    >by foreign real estate investors. ???

    Instead of wondering perhaps you might want to check if your head is screwed on straight? After all SB 50 is backed to the hilt by the very same realtors (and the moneybags behind them: developers and real estate investors, local and foreign) you call out. It is THEY that would benefit immensely by SB 50. Not “rich landowners”. And certainly not the working class whose interests are purportedly represented by Scott Wiener and his cohorts whose claims about “affordable housing” doesn’t merit even a mention in the text or aims of SB 50 or the other bills they are crafting. Says a lot, doesn’t it, about them and those that support them!

  12. Housing is a matter of supply and demand. Right now, there’s a serious shortage of housing, often because cities refuse to allow high density high rises through height restrictions. Also because established neighborhoods have a NIMBY attitude and don’t want affordable housing in their area (they think it brings riff-raff).
    You can’t bring down the cost of housing without providing more of it or by driving jobs and people out of the state. If California is going to have job growth and more companies like Facebook, Google, Apple, and Salesforce, there will have to be more high-rise condo buildings.

  13. >You can’t bring down the cost of housing without providing more of it OR
    >by driving jobs and people out of the state.

    Replace your OR with an AND and then you start making sense.
    Merely adding housing while adding even more jobs does nothing to solve the “housing crisis”. Where does SB 50 and other such bills require that balancing of jobs and housing? Nada zilch zip…and therefore, they need to be consigned to the garbage can.

    Nobody needs to “drive jobs…out of state”. That is a red herring and suggestive of the illogic of the SB 50 camp. Move the jobs out of areas where there is high jobs vs housing imbalance…and providing more housing would only worsen the already unacceptable load on infrastructure (transportation, water, schools, etc). Encourage them in areas where the elements enable that balance to be produced.

    Meanwhile…SB 50 fans would do better to desist from throwing around labels (“NIMBY”, “affordable housing”, etc.) and focus instead on getting their heads screwed on straight.

  14. Stop the smearing and labeling. You wouldn’t need to do that if your argument had merit.
    SB 50 would provide a huge payday for developers, fat commissions for realtors, large numbers of high wage Union construction worker jobs, and lots of luxury, expensive condos. That does not make a dent in solving the dearth of affordable housing.
    Work on some real solutions to wage inequality and transit.

  15. Weiner is a lying con-artist, his goal is the elimination of single family housing in California. Just look at what he and his YIMBY bots believe, that single family homes are evil and the cause of every problem in the state.

    Local control is far more important than building some luxury condos for tech bros. Continue standing up PA, we must not stop fighting until SB50 is dead and buried.

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